If you were to set up and run a degree programme to develop students as changemakers for Sustainability, what would that look like?
At the start of my trip to North America, I had an inspiring morning with Steve Mannell, Georgia Klein and Bridget Graham at Dalhousie University’s College of Sustainability in Halifax, Canada to hear about just that.
Their programme, Environment Sustainability and Society (ESS), is one of a handful in North America that brings together students and staff from diverse backgrounds to study the practice of taking action for sustainability alongside a disciplinary specialism. Students take ESS as one part of a ‘Double Major’ – this means that it is always combined with developing another specialism and that classes have a genuine inter-disciplinary flavour.
ESS has a big focus on developing collaborative and problem-solving skills to address complex sustainability issues. A key part is an extended placement with community organisations or businesses to work on a real-life challenge put forward by these partners. This is combined with a great deal of reflection on these experiences, in writing and in discussion, so students can track how they’ve developed skills and developed insights over time.
ESS is run within Dalhousie’s ‘College of Sustainability’, which was set up as a new college to run the programme around a decade ago. The programme very much sits within its community, with other outward-facing activity. There are public lectures every Thursday night (providing a topic for students’ Friday classes, ensuring good attendance), Monday morning coffee mornings (how I came to make the link) and a Sustainability Leadership Certificate open to all current students and graduates.
Around 500 students have graduated over the past decade, going on to develop social enterprises like Halifax’s first zero waste shop, or working on sustainability within government, in businesses via graduate recruitment schemes or the voluntary sector. They keep in touch with their Alumni, drawing on them as guest speakers and using their future work to show where the programme can take you. This provides reassurance for parents who are sometimes concerned (or at least curious) about the career prospects for someone doing a vocational sustainability degree.